Trump avoids escalating Iran crisis, says Tehran ‘standing down’

Iran is believed to have deliberately sought to avoid US military casualties in missile strikes on bases housing American troops in Iraq.

U.S. President Donald Trump holds a campaign rally in Sunrise, Florida, U.S., November 26, 2019 (photo credit: REUTERS/YURI GRIPAS)
U.S. President Donald Trump holds a campaign rally in Sunrise, Florida, U.S., November 26, 2019
(photo credit: REUTERS/YURI GRIPAS)
US President Donald Trump said the US does not necessarily have to use its military power against Iran, but vowed to continue pressuring the Islamic Republic on its nuclear ambitions.
“As long as I am president of the United States, Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon,” Trump said before starting to read his written remarks on Wednesday, in his first public speech since the US military killed Qasem Soleimani last week.
In his nine-minute speech, Trump said that no Americans were harmed during the Iranian missile attack on US military bases on Wednesday morning. “We suffered no casualties, all of our soldiers are safe, and only minimal damage was sustained at our military bases.”
The president added that thanks to the precautions taken, no American or Iraqi lives were lost. “I salute the incredible skill and courage of America’s men and women in uniform.”
He added that while US forces are prepared for any scenario, “Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world.”
He also announced that while the US continues to evaluate options in response to Iran’s Wednesday morning attack, “the United States will immediately impose additional punishing economic sanctions on the Iranian regime. These powerful sanctions will remain until Iran changes its behavior.”
“For far too long – all the way back to 1979, to be exact – nations have tolerated Iran’s destructive and destabilizing behavior in the Middle East and beyond,” he continued. “Those days are over. Iran has been the leading sponsor of terrorism, and their pursuit of nuclear weapons threatens the civilized world. We will never let that happen.”
Iranian forces fired missiles at military bases housing US troops in Iraq on Wednesday morning in retaliation for the killing last week in Iraq of Iranian general Soleimani, raising the stakes in its conflict with Washington, amid concern about a wider war in the Middle East.
US-Iran crisis: Missile attack timeline
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, addressing a gathering of Iranians chanting “Death to America,” said the missile attacks were a “slap on the face” of the United States and said US troops should leave the region.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had said the strikes “concluded” Tehran’s response to the killing of Soleimani, who had been responsible for building up Iran’s network of proxy armies across the Middle East. He was buried in his hometown, Kerman, on Monday after days of national mourning.
“We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression,” he wrote on Twitter.
MEANWHILE, PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel will strike back hard if Iran attacks.
“The State of Israel is the stable anchor in the stormy [Middle East] waters,” Netanyahu warned at the Kohelet Policy Forum’s conference. “We stand firm in the face of those who seek to destroy us. Anyone who tries to attack us will suffer the most overwhelming blow.”
Netanyahu said Soleimani “was responsible for the death of countless innocent people. He destabilized many countries. For decades, he sowed fear and misery and anguish, and he was planning much worse.”
“President Trump should be congratulated for acting swiftly, boldly and resolutely,” he said. “What I’ve said openly in the past few days, many leaders in the Middle East think.” The prime minister added that Israel “stands completely beside the United States.”
“America has no better friend than Israel, and Israel has no better friend than the USA,” he stated.
US Ambassador David Friedman also remarked on the missile attacks by Iran on an American base in Iraq, saying “initial assessments are positive and we pray those reports are true.”
“We pray to God that we will prevail overwhelmingly and...defeat the threats of our time and bring about a more just and more peaceful world,” he said.
The security cabinet held a five-hour meeting to discuss matters related to Iran, among others, on Wednesday.
In his speech, Trump urged world powers to quit a 2015 nuclear accord with Iran that Washington abandoned in 2018, and work for a new deal, an issue that has been at the heart of rising tensions between Washington and Tehran. Iran has rejected new talks.
There was no immediate reaction from Iranian officials to Trump’s comments. The semiofficial Fars News Agency described the US president’s remarks as a “big retreat from threats.”
Trump’s reaction in the immediate aftermath of Wednesday morning’s attacks had been to say on Twitter that “All is well!” and that Washington was assessing damage.
That tweet and the comment by Iran’s foreign minister had acted to soothe some initial concerns about a wider war and calmed jittery financial markets. Oil prices slipped back after an early spike.
US and European government sources said they believe Iran had deliberately sought to avoid US military casualties in its missile strikes in order to prevent an escalation.
But an Iranian army spokesman denied “foreign media reports,” suggesting there had been some kind of coordination between Iran and the United States before the attack to allow bases to be evacuated, Fars News Agency said.
The US president, who was impeached last month and faces an election in November this year, had at the weekend threatened to target 52 Iranian sites if Iran retaliated for Soleimani’s killing.
Iranian state television said Iran had fired 15 ballistic missiles from its territory at US targets in its neighbor Iraq early on Wednesday. The Pentagon said Ain al-Asad air base and another facility in Erbil in Iraq were struck.
Iranian television reported that an official in the supreme leader’s office said the missile attacks were the “weakest” of several retaliation scenarios. It quoted another source saying Iran had lined up 100 other potential targets.
But analysts said Iran wanted to avoid any conventional military conflict with superior US forces.
US officials said Soleimani was killed because forces under his command planned attacks on US targets, although they did not provide evidence.
Also, during a conference held by the Jewish People Policy Institute, former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot said that Soleimani’s assassination removed the “chief architect of Iran’s regional policy for the past 20 years from the equation,” and the “chief strategist” who worked against the State of Israel.
“Since 2005, the Iranian threat has been defined as the most significant threat to the State of Israel. This threat has two main components – the Iranian vision and desire to obtain nuclear weapons and the Iranian effort to achieve regional hegemony,” he said.
While Eisenkot avoided predicting how things could develop, saying it was an American act and it was correct for Israel not to be involved, the military should nonetheless prepare for possible escalation scenarios.
But, he stressed, Israel was not responsible for Soleimani’s assassination.
When asked about a possible mutual defense pact with the United States, he stated that Israel does not need a defense alliance with the United States, as such a pact could constrain Israel and deprive it of the freedom of action it needs in order to defend itself.